Estonia was mentioned much more often in the news last month when Paul Krugman criticized the country’s finances, and President Toomas Ilves offered a rebuttal. But there have been a handful of references to the small nation since then.
Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, pondered if poor weather, and friendliness to technologists, are the main causes for successful economies. He called the “Estonian Pattern Key.”
Lately I’ve been wondering if the Republican versus Democrat model does the best job of explaining our governmental gridlock. Could there be another binary sorting that is the root cause? Let’s start with a little pattern recognition test and I’ll circle back to my point.
Compare the relatively successful economies in the first group of countries below to the economic zombie nations in the second group. Other than economics, what characteristic does the first group have that the second group does not?
The first thing you might notice is that the weaker economies have nicer climates. In the United States, productivity always drops through the floor when ugly winter weather gives way to nice spring days. I assume evolution created some sort of trigger in humans that tells us good weather means fruit will drop from trees and bad weather means you’d better start collecting some acorns for the winter. I know that if I have a lot of work to do, I hope for a cold and rainy day. And I don’t even have outdoorsy hobbies. My productivity drops just knowing it’s a nice day on the other side of my door.
But weather isn’t the only pattern in the country groupings. The countries with stronger economies have reputations for creating engineers and technologists. Where you have lots of engineers you have prosperity. Now let’s circle back to my point about the United States being in a binary mindset with Republicans and Democrats. What is it that drives so many citizens who are infinitely different from each other to stuff themselves into one of two boxes? Some of the answer is our reflex for sorting everything into two boxes. But there’s another answer: lawyers
I saw an estimate that 36% of our elected leaders have law degrees. That’s notable for two reasons. First, and most obvious, lawyers are trained to see the world in terms of winners and losers. The legal game is not designed to be a win-win proposition. Lawyers don’t say their clients are mostly innocent, or somewhat negligent. Lawyers say every bit of evidence is 100% supportive of whatever view they want you to believe. It’s hard to imagine any sort of job training that would be a worse fit for the infinite nuance of government service.
Second, and more problematic, lawyers are trained to convince other people that the gray areas they see are not gray at all. Lawyers are experts at turning ambiguous evidence into whatever confirmation bias serves their argument. And while lawyers aren’t the only people trying to convince others of their worldview, they’re generally the best at it. If you infect any group with 36% lawyers, you can expect it to evolve into two teams of haters.
Pulling all of this together, I think our brains have no choice but to sort things in two piles. But maybe we do have the choice of what kind of piles we pick. The lawyers in government would have us believe our two choices are Republican or Democrat. I think we might get better results by labeling our binary choices as Lawyer or Engineer.
In a review of Aaron Sorkin’s The News Room, film critic Jim Emerson mentions the country. It’s a reminder that for most people on the planet, Estonian sounds like gibberish. An exception would be the Finns, whose language is close enough that as far as they’re concerned, Estonians sound really drunk.
Don’t get me started on his lack of technological savvy. When someone in a Sorkin script says something as common as “blog” or “Twitter” they sound like they’re speaking Estonian. Because they may as well be.
Memories of June 1940 still weigh heavily on this Baltic nation. Given the horrors of the half century of totalitarian occupation that followed, it’s never difficult to understand why.